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However manipulative its methods, however unenlightening its charms, James Brooks’ 1984 Terms of Endearment was at least full of old-fashioned film-school-derived, TV-enshrined competence (Brooks made his name and reputation directing for the small screen). The characters acted in accordance with the psychologies they had been given, the Texas setting was exploited for brashness and modern Southern romance, and the shameless heartstring-tugging that sent audiences nationwide out theater doors sniffling was related to tissue-worthy developments: infidelity, illness, death.
Most importantly, Brooks understood that such life disasters should come at a high cost to the sort of lives depicted, so Terms chugged along crisply, dispensing tart zingers and other unsentimental jokes. The painful moments, when they came, seemed more tender, more hard to bear. The contrast was very smart, very effective, and very much made for TV—laughter and sadness writ large against the backdrop of ordinariness. Just like Real Life, it was said at the time, only more dramatic. Terms of Endearment’s fancy canned emotions provoked one of Pauline Kael’s last great lines: “The movie says, ‘You can go home now—you’ve laughed, you’ve cried.’”
Larry McMurtry, who wrote the 1975 novel on which the original movie was based (as well as the novels that inspired The Last Picture Show and Lonesome Dove), is a professional Texan who knows which side his cornbread is buttered on. No sooner did Terms of Endearment sweep the 1984 Oscars than McMurtry spit on his hands and started in on the sequel, inevitably to be adapted for the big screen. Fifteen years later, just when everyone has forgotten who was in the first movie besides Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson, The Evening Star is out, replete with characters you can’t be sure existed before and reprising MacLaine’s patented dotty-old-dame act with Rockette precision. If you laughed and cried the first time, you’ll do so again, not because what happens onscreen demands it, but because what is happening onscreen seems to expect it of you. Director Robert Harling, who also wrote the screenplay and indicated his conversance with Southern femininity by writing Steel Magnolias, slathers drippy, hectoring music over every scene, so that whoever isn’t weeping into her Milk Duds can feel like a big grumpypuss, and handily allows his characters to slip out of character for the sake of a cheap laugh or a PG-13 rating. Aurora Greenway is 15 years older (MacLaine herself has hardly aged a minute, the dear) and her dead daughter Emma’s kids are giving her grief. When the movie opens, that grief seems reasonable enough. Aurora may be overbearing and meddlesome, but she does love her grandkids: unambitious Teddy (Mackenzie Astin), with his new-agey girlfriend and foulmouthed out-of-wedlock toddler, willful Melanie (Juliette Lewis), who’s more interested in her no-good hunky boyfriend than in finishing college, and sullen Tommy (George Newbern), who routinely tosses in the garbage the meticulously initialed and prettily packed boxes of brownies Aurora brings him on her visits to him—in jail.
Hovering at the edges of her life are also Patsy (Miranda Richardson), Emma’s erstwhile best friend and another fierce protector of the children. She has married and divorced herself into a fortune, and likes nothing better than to discreetly throw cash and unconditional acceptance at the young ones, then just as discreetly let Aurora discover and fume helplessly at this high-end meddling. Aurora’s devoted maid (here it’s Marion Ross, looking like a burn victim) is drifting from her, and her neighbor and sometime lover Gen. Hector Scott (Donald Moffat) is hovering around, ready to sweep Aurora into his firm military grasp as soon as she gives the OK. Aurora needs someone to talk to, which nowadays means therapy.
Enter Bill Paxton as Jerry Bruckner, a charming, loutish, boyish, not entirely certified plot device, whose presence allows Aurora to open up to someone not involved in her complaints (yet) and to initiate an affair whose rationale is as obvious as it is nauseating. Patsy, who has everything but, of course, wants what Aurora’s got (didn’t anyone here see MacLaine in The Turning Point?) aims to get her claws into Jerry as well.
The Evening Star bubbles along at a rapid, engaging perk—stuff is always happening, and if you can ignore the nature of the stuff, there’s something entertaining in every scene. But it’s a cramped, distrustful movie, in which every emotional swoop is signaled, pumped to bursting, and dragged back and forth in front of our eyes like a pet iguana at show-and-tell. By the time the actual iguana makes an appearance, in the sly, twinkling form of Nicholson in a superbrief but no doubt superlucrative cameo, even the susceptible snifflers in the audience know whose turn it was to show up, do his thing, and sod off to the bank. Eventually, everything works out inexplicably for the best. The kids learn the lessons for which they are destined, and Patsy regrets her manipulativeness, no thanks to anything visible on the screen. As each character’s life becomes preternaturally wholesome and wonderful, the movie appears to end, but then it revs back up for another cuddly interlude of closure. Tommy decides to straighten up and fly right after grandma shows him some family pictures, Teddy’s kid stops saying “butthole,” and Melanie reaps the ultimate reward for being the level-headed one—she becomes a successful sitcom actress. Good work, Aurora—you’ve laughed, you’ve cried, you can die a crotchety-but-heartbreaking death now.
None of this is to say that The Evening Star is the shoddiest movie out there—it’s L’Atalante compared with Nora Ephron’s Michael, a project so fuzzy-minded that it would insult even people who’ve felt that mainstream culture has lost some of its magic since the whole unicorn thing went under.
The plot is simple and crassly exploitative: John Travolta plays the archangel Michael, a smoking, drinking, slobby emissary from above who has been entrusted with a mission to “give a man his heart back.” The man in question, as far as one can tell, seems to be William Hurt as tabloid reporter Frank Quinlan; what happened to his heart, apparently, is none of our business. Quinlan and another writer for the fictional National Mirror, Huey Driscoll (Robert Pastorelli), are sent to investigate the story, and tagging along is that menace to intelligent or appealing female roles, Andie MacDowell, as Dorothy Winters. Dorothy’s really only going because Frank is about to get the use of another organ back as well, and the movie needs someone for him to give it to. But she does purport to be an “angel expert,” and her big confession later on is that she is not, indeed, an angel expert.
What, you ask, the fuck is an angel expert? Well, yes. The baseline of skepticism with which this movie starts is somewhere between “believes anything” and “believes everything.” When the three hard-bitten journalists—tabloid journalists!—argue in their adorable cabins at the Milk Bottle Motel, Michael’s temporary home with proprietor Jean Stapleton, they first wonder: 1.) why they didn’t hear about the miraculous half-bird/half-man when it was born, and then 2.) whether the angel is after the old lady’s money. What doesn’t occur to any of these jaded Chicagoites is the possibility that the whole story is a hoax. The level of gullible stupidity is jaw-dropping: The guys keep asking Dorothy if Michael’s behavior is in celestial order—after all, she’s the angel expert. She’s wackily flustered by this, of course, and keeps comparing their behavior with that of her three former husbands—what a ninny. All the other females in their orbit, as they drive their big catch back to the big city, are flustered by Michael himself; for some thankfully unexplained reason, angels exert a powerful erotic pull on mortal women. Travolta is all effortless charm as the angel with a lusty soul, but he doesn’t have to do anything more than float through this movie to seem tremendously attractive in comparison to what’s happening around him. Michael’s life-loving nature inevitably leads to a sexy and spirited dancing sequence. There should be joy in watching Travolta gather young women around him, like iron filings to a magnet, and spin at the center of a grinding circle of hypnotized female flesh to the sound of “Chain of Fools.” But its purpose is so transparent you get mad at Ephron for manipulating you into enjoying yourself. Having John Travolta dance in a movie is the last refuge of a moron.